How Not to Ride a Train in France

The police officer took out his handcuffs, and that’s when I realized a translation error must have been to blame.

It’s 1997. My friend Jenny and I are on a train from Metz to Strasbourg while studying abroad in France as undergrads. Like almost every other person from the U.S. studying abroad in Europe, we saw much of the continent on a pre-purchased Eurail pass, which is used in place of a train ticket for travelers who want a multi-day pass to stretch over a certain period of time. They are sold in multi-day packs of 10, 13, and 15 days, and so on. It was the last month of the semester and we each had one day left on our passes, so we thought, “Why not go to Metz?”

Comma, comme ça?

That morning, off we went, sans probleme. But on the way back, grande probleme. In the 1990s at least, the back of a Eurail pass clearly stated that, in order to be valid, the pass had to be accompanied by “a student ID, a military ID or a passport.” As someone who understands how commas work, this meant to me that with any of these three individual items, my Eurail pass was valid.

In English, the comma stands in way of the conjunction. It replaces the conjunction to make a sentence shorter and more concise. So, “a student ID, a military ID or a passport” means the same thing as “a student ID or a military ID or a passport.” That day, because we weren’t crossing any national borders since both Metz and Strasbourg are in France, I didn’t have my passport with me, but I did have my student ID. In English, that was fine. I was following the law; my pass was valid.

But the French, well, I won’t say they don’t know how a comma works, but simply that in the French language, the comma works differently. In French, the comma does not always replace the conjunctions “or” or “nor.” In fact, the only conjunction the comma replaces in French is “and.” Unfortunately, whoever translated my Eurail pass didn’t know that. So the French translation read the equivalent of “a student ID and a military ID, or a passport.”

Enter translation error. Enter French conductor who doubles as a police officer and has the authority to throw you in jail for illegally riding a train. Enter handcuffs and an extra fine for insubordination with a government official.

Going the Extra Linguistic Mile

See, when clients choose who translates their material, it’s not just about words; it’s about everything. While it may seem advantageous to take the easy route in working with “someone who speaks a little French” or the lowest bidder, even the simplest projects (like instructions on the back of a train ticket) come with important complications.

You may think that yours is a small project, or you may think it’s okay to cut corners. Sometimes it is. But before you do, think about the person at the other end of your document or website who will actually be holding this translation in her hand. How important is this to her? How does this impact the user of your product or service? At the end of the supply chain, what’s the best and the worst that could happen as a result of this translation? Maybe a 19-year-old girl abroad for the first time is depending on you. And even something as simple as a comma could put her in jail.

About Terena Bell

Terena Bell is CEO of In Every Language, a Smartling translation partner. She currently sits on the White House Business Roundtable and writes a monthly column for MultiLingual Magazine on the impact of societal macroforces on the translation industry. Terena is former Secretary of the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) and a former Association of Language Companies (ALC) board member. She tweets at @InEveryLanguage.